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10-08-2015, 17:00

The Soviet Union

During the mid-1920s, Soviet society gradually recovered from the enormous damage caused by the Great War. As he consolidated his power at the expense of rivals within the party, Joseph Stalin followed a centrist policy that avoided confrontation with his capitalist enemies abroad while encouraging capitalist forces at home under the careful guidance of the state. But Stalin—fearful that the rising influence of the small Russian bourgeoisie could undermine the foundations of party rule—had no intention of permitting the New Economic Policy to continue indefinitely. In the late 1920s, he used the issue to bring the power struggle to a head. Stalin had previously joined with the moderate Bukharin and other members of the party to defend the NEP against Leon Trotsky, whose “left opposition” wanted a more rapid advance toward socialism. Then, in 1928, Stalin reversed course: he now claimed that the NEP had achieved its purpose and called for a rapid advance to socialist forms of ownership. Beginning in 1929, a series of new programs changed the face of Soviet society. Private capitalism in manufacturing and trade was virtually abolished, and party and state control over the economy was extended. The first of a series of five-year plans was launched to promote rapid “socialist industrialization,” and in a massive effort to strengthen the state’s hold over the agricultural economy, all private farmers were herded onto collective farms. The bitter campaign to collectivize the countryside aroused the antagonism of many peasants and led to a decline in food production and in some areas to mass starvation. It also further divided the Communist Party and led to a massive purge of party members at all levels who opposed Stalin’s effort to achieve rapid economic growth and the socialization of Russian society. A series of brutal purge trials eliminated thousands of “Old Bolsheviks” (people who had joined the party before the 1917 Revolution) and resulted in the conviction and death of many of Stalin’s chief rivals. Trotsky, driven into exile, was dispatched by Stalin’s assassin in 1940. Of the delegates who had attended the National Congress of the CPSU (Communist Party of the Soviet Union) in 1934, fully 70 percent had been executed by the time of the National Congress in 1939. By the late 1930s, as the last of the great purge trials came to an end, the Russian Revolution had been in existence for more than two decades. It had achieved some successes. Stalin’s policy of forced industrialization had led to rapid growth in the industrial sector, surpassing in many respects what had been achieved in the capitalist years prior to World War I. Between 1918 and 1937, steel production increased from 4 to 18 million tons per year, and hard coal output went from 36 to 128 million tons. New industrial cities sprang up overnight in the Urals and Siberia. The Russian people in general were probably better clothed, better fed, and better educated than they had ever been before. The cost had been enormous, however. Millions had died by bullet or starvation. Thousands, perhaps millions, languished in Stalin’s concentration camps. The remainder of the population lived in a society now officially described as socialist, under the watchful eye of a man who had risen almost to the rank of a deity, the great leader of the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin. The impact of Joseph Stalin on Soviet society in one decade had been enormous. If Lenin had brought the party to power and nursed it through the difficult years of the civil war, it was Stalin, above all, who had mapped out the path to economic modernization and socialist transformation. To many foreign critics of the regime, the Stalinist terror and autocracy were an inevitable consequence of the concept of the vanguard party and the centralized state built by Lenin. Others traced Stalinism back to Marx. It was he, after all, who had formulated the idea of the dictatorship of the proletariat, which now provided ideological justification for the Stalinist autocracy. Still others found the ultimate cause in the Russian political culture, which had been characterized by autocracy since the emergence of Russian society from Mongol control in the fifteenth century. Was Stalinism an inevitable outcome of Marxist- Leninist doctrine and practice? Or as Mikhail Gorbachev later claimed, were Stalin’s crimes “alien to the nature of socialism” and a departure from the course charted by Lenin before his death? Certainly, Lenin had not envisaged a party dominated by a figure who became even larger than the organization itself and who, in the 1930s, almost destroyed the party. On the other hand, recent evidence shows that Lenin was capable of the brutal suppression of perceived enemies of the revolution in a way that is reminiscent in manner, if not in scope, of that of his successor, Stalin. It is clear from the decade of the 1920s that there were other models for development in Soviet society than that adopted by Stalin; the NEP program, so ardently supported by Bukharin, is testimony to that fact. But it is also true that the state created by Lenin provided the conditions for a single-minded leader like Stalin to rise to absolute power. The great danger that neither Marx nor Lenin had foreseen had come to pass: the party itself, the vanguard organization leading the way into the utopian future, had become corrupted.